“BEAUTIFUL GENIUS” (1854-1923) – Phoebe Sarah Ayrton nee Marks


This article provides a brief summary of the life of a remarkable Jewish woman who came from poor roots to become an inventor, physicist, mathematician, and suffragette.

Early life

Phoebe Sarah Marks 1854-1923 was one of eight children born to Levi Marks (1817-1861) a Polish immigrant and itinerant watch maker, jeweler (Cemetery Scribes ID 10086). He married Alice Theresa Moss (1826-1898) in Portsea 1851. Her parents were Joseph Moss (1787-1862) and Amelia Solomon (1792-1876).

Phoebe’s father died in 1 July, 1861 at 12 Butcher Street, Portsea leaving his wife with eight young children. He left a letter of administration with effects under £200.

His widow was living at the same address as her parents at 70 Union Street, Portsea following the death of her husband. She had a newly born daughter and her father died the following year. She earned a living as a shirt maker.

The family life became very difficult for Phoebe’s mother and at the age of nine she went to live with her maternal aunt Marion Hartog (her cousins were Sir Philip Hartog and his brothers Numa, Cecil and Marcus among others) who ran a school with her husband. During this time Phoebe was able to study and by the age of sixteen was a governess in the 1871 Census in the house of Maurice Gabriel, Dental Surgeon and his family at 56 Harley Street, London. This enabled her to send money to support her mother and siblings.

Phoebe’s strong personality and academic aptitude was recognised by Karl Blind and his daughter Ottilie who named her “Hertha” (there are two versions as to the origin of the name. One version states the name was taken from the heroine in a novel by the feminist Swedish writer Frederika Bremer. Another says it is taken from the poem Hertha by Algernon Charles Swinburne). The Swinburne poem attacked established religious views. Phoebe at this stage became agnostic but retained a respect for her Jewish heritage. She adopted the name Hertha which later reflected her strong views about the rights of woman to be recognised as having equal rights to men including votes and education. These views were to include her involvement in the suffragette movement and support from numbers of similar minded individuals. Throughout her life she spoke out about restrictions placed on women including the legal, financial and other imbalance in husband’s rights over their wives.

Academic study and Marriage

Ottilie Hancock nee Blind encouraged Hertha to study for the Cambridge University Local examination for secondary schools which she passed in 1874.

She also took Hertha to suffragette meetings where she met her future lifelong supporter Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon (1827- 1891) an important feminist activist. Bodichon with Emily Davies had co-founded Girton College, Cambridge the first university college for women.

Bodichon, George Eliot, Lady Sophia Goldsmid and Helen Taylor provided funds for Phoebe to study at Girton. There has been debate that George Eliot used Hertha as the character Mirah Cohen in Daniel Deronda but this was denied by Hertha.

Cambridge did not offer degrees to women but she studied mathematics at Girton which enabled her to teach mathematics in London secondary schools. She was awarded an external B.Sc. by the University of London (1881).

During the early 1880s she attended classes in electricity at Finsbury Technical College taught by her future husband William Edward Ayrton an electrical engineer.

They were married in 1885. He was a widower with a daughter Edith. Edith was later to marry Israel Zangwill a strong supporter of the suffragette movement, poet, author and Zionist. The relationship between Hertha, Edith and Israel appears to have been close particularly in terms of their mutual involvement in women’s rights.

The 1891 Census records Hertha living with her husband, step daughter Edith age 16 and daughter Barbara age 5 in Kensington. In 1891 her close friend and supporter Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon (1827-1891) died and left her a large bequest. She used this to support her mother and to employ a house keeper enabling her to have time for research.

Her husband was very supportive of Hertha and in 1891 Hertha recommenced experiments in electricity including work based on her husband’s research into electric arcs. This research led to her becoming the first woman to read a paper (1899) to the Institute of Electrical Engineers. She expanded her research to investigate sand ripples and was nominated as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1902. However, the Society due to its charter was unable to admit married women but did award her the Hughes Medal in 1906 for her research on arc and sand ripples.

Hertha’s husband commented to a friend that “you and I are able people, but Hertha is a genius”

When Marie Curie discovered radium it was wrongly attributed to her husband. Hertha campaigned for rightful attribution and wrote that “errors are notoriously hard to kill, but an error that ascribes to a man what was actually the work of a woman has more lives than a cat.” When Curie’s marriage broke down she and her daughter stayed with Hertha and their friendship can be read in several letters.

Her husband died 8 November, 1908 at 41 Norfolk Square, Hyde Park, Middlesex leaving probate to his wife, daughters Edith and Barbara.

Inventions and Patents

During WW1 she invented a fan for dispersing poison gas during enemy attacks. The military originally rejected the fan but some 104000 were introduced but were not effective and later adapted for use in mines and sewerage.

The UK National Archives records 26 of her patents. These include mathematical dividers, arc lamps and electrodes, propulsion of air.

Suffragette Movement

Hertha was active in the women’s suffragette movement and in 1907 joined the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). She befriended Emmeline Pankhurst on her release from prison and participated in future support including donating funds.

Her daughter Barbara married William Gould and became MP for Hendon North and Chairman of the Labour party. She died in London 1950.


Her cause of death was septicaemia from an insect bite. She died 23 August, 1923 at The New Cottage, North Lancing Sussex. She left probate of just over £8000 to her daughter Barbara.

She was an agnostic during her life but still respected Jewish customs and beliefs. The Jewish Chronicle August 1923 records her being cremated at Golders Green Crematorium.

Blue Plaques and awards in her name

The IEE held commemorations for Hertha in 1998 and in 2015 the British Society for the History of Science introduced the Ayrton prize for web and digital projects. The BBC Radio 4 Great Lives episode January 2018 was on Hertha. A Blue plaque was placed on the house of her birth February 2018.

There is another plaque at the Norfolk Square house, London.


Phoebe Sarah Marks aka Hertha Ayrton was not only an important inventor but actively involved in promoting the recognition and rights of women. Her work led to increased opportunities for women in science, engineering and as major inventors and researchers. Her work and achievements were remarkable at a time when men dominated all aspects of everyday life including the home, work, education and society. These contributions live on and continue to promote the voice and empowerment of women.

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